The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was launched as part of the Brady Act in 1998 and is run by the FBI.
The FBI website describes the mission of the NICS as “saving lives and protecting people from harm”. The goal of NICS background checks is two-fold: ensuring the timely transfer of firearms to eligible buyers and not letting firearms fall into the wrong hands (source). From November 30, 1998, to November 30, 2020, the FBI conducted 368,762,315 background checks.
ATF Form 4473 is the first step in this process. As a firearms dealer, here’s everything you need to know about NICS background checks.
NICS Background Check System
In order to participate in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, you first need to enroll. This involves completing the NICS enrollment form which you can find here. The fastest way to complete a background check while your customer is in the store is by using the NICS E-check system. “FFLs who use the NICS E-Check are able to initiate an unassisted NICS background check for firearm purchases via the Internet.” It requires a separate enrollment, which can be completed here.
The speed of the background check depends on which contact method you’re using.
Call centers can process a background check in a little more than two minutes on average. Calls requiring further investigation take about eight minutes. Electronic processing is the fastest at just under two minutes.
Whether you’re requesting the background check by phone or by E-check, you should make sure to have all the necessary information — for all the checks you want to request — ready to go before calling or logging in. The customer service representative won’t be able to hold while you look for missing information. Here’s what you need:
- Sections A & B of the new 2020 Form 4473 fully completed
- A valid photo ID for each background check
- An answer of “yes” to question 21a, answers of “no” to questions 21b-21k, and answers of “yes” to questions 21.1.1 and 21.1.2.
The following persons are prohibited from purchasing a firearm (source: ATF):
- Those convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment
- Those convicted of the possession or use of a controlled substance
- Anyone under indictment for a crime punishable by imprisonment
- Persons who have been convicted of domestic violence
- Fugitives from justice
- Unlawful immigration status
- Mental defectives and those committed to a mental institution
- Former members of the armed forces who have been dishonorably discharged
- Persons subject to a restraining order
- Anyone who has renounced their citizenship
NICS Background Check Databases
Four databases are searched during a NICS background check: The NCIC, the Triple I, the NICS index, and the DHS database. The FBI databases only include records of people who commit federal crimes. State-level convictions are submitted voluntarily by the individual state.
The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) is “a criminal records database allowing criminal justice agencies to enter or search for information about stolen property, missing or wanted persons, and domestic violence protection orders; to get criminal histories; and to access the National Sex Offender Registry.”
The Interstate Identification Index (III) is a national index of criminal histories maintained by the FBI. It includes people who have been arrested for a serious crime anywhere in the U.S and allows states to share information on criminal activity between themselves.
The NICS Index is used to determine whether or not a person is eligible to purchase firearms or explosives. The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement database is used when the prospective buyer isn’t a U.S. citizen.
If the response to a background check is “proceed”, the NICS transaction number (NTN) is recorded in field 27b and the firearm is transferred. If the response is “denied”, a NICS resolution card with NTN at the bottom is provided to the customer so they can appeal. If the response is “delayed”, the NICS has three days to research and respond. Often the NICS examiner can provide a response immediately, but if there is no response after three days, the transfer of the firearm can proceed.
From November 30, 1998, to November 30, 2020, 1,873,968 firearm transfers have been denied, ½ of 1% of the number of background checks conducted. Of those, 52% were due to the conviction of a crime, 11% were because the person was a fugitive from justice, and 10% were due to the unlawful use of a controlled substance.
The FBI, through NICS, provides full-service background checks for 26 states, the District of Columbia, and three U.S Territories. Twelve states act as a point of contact (POC), which means that FFLs contact the state-designated agency directly for background checks. The remaining states act as a partial POC, sharing responsibility with the FBI for background checks. A complete map of NICS participation can be found here.
When a state acts as a POC, it expands the number of records that are searched. If a potential buyer has a state record that doesn’t allow the purchase of a firearm, it will be found when the state databases are searched. The federal government encourages states to share their records with the FBI, but it isn’t a requirement. The NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 was passed to improve communication between the states and the feds, leading to more records available for search in the national databases.
To go deeper on the details of the National Instant Background Check System, visit the FBI’s NICS webpage.